Two state utility regulators backed away Thursday from a proposal to send a $10,000 settlement from a telephone company to an anti-abortion Christian charity to which they’re connected.
The decision by Public Service Commission members Doug Everett and Tim Echols came after Attorney General Sam Olens’ office told them such use of the money would be improper.
The PSC in the past has sent money paid by companies to settle regulatory issues to certain charities, often involved in utility assistance efforts.
Recently, Everett and Echols proposed sending settlement money paid by a local phone service provider to Care Net, a national network of centers that provide low-income women pregnancy services with a goal of reducing abortions.
Care Net promotes adoption and says its ultimate aim”is to share the love and truth of Jesus Christ in both word and deed.”
Everett, whose wife volunteers for Care Net, said the idea is “no different than anything we’ve done in the past.”
“For years, we always had the impression and was given the impression by lawyers that instead of a fine, we could do a stipulation with people and different groups,” Everett said.
Olens and his staff disagreed.
In an Aug. 29 email to commissioners, Senior Assistant Attorney General Daniel Walsh said in some instances there “may be a rationale” for diverting settlement money into utility-related projects. Examples, he said, were consumer rebates or education efforts about natural gas safety.
The proposal to give money to Care Net, he wrote, offers no “plausible connection between a utility regulation and a pregnancy center.”
Olens himself sent a letter to the PSC this week that seemed to take a harder line. It said “any civil penalties imposed in order to settle violations of regulatory matters within the jurisdiction of the PSC (are to be) paid into the state treasury.”
Olens spokeswoman Lauren Kane told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday that Olens’ office was not consulted about previous settlement plans. She said diversion of settlements can be allowed but there must be a “nexus” between the recipient group and the case.
Everett said he’s worried Olens’ letter will squelch efforts to give future settlements to charities. “I don’t see how we can give that money now to senior citizens to help with their utility bills,” he said.
Last March, the commission and Atlanta Gas Light agreed to a $50,000 settlement over a damaged gas line in Savannah. The settlement was divided between H.E.A.T, Inc., a group that helps low-income families meet energy needs, and a foundation that assists National Guard members and their families.
The agency ordered gas marketer Energy America to give $400,000 to low-income energy assistance programs in Georgia in 2003 and another $54,000 to those programs in 2004.
Everett suggested that the local phone company, Peerless Network, donate $10,000 to Care Net at a PSC telecommunications committee meeting this week. The members did not vote on the proposal at that meeting.
The settlement stemmed from Peerless Network’s failure to file some quarterly reports with the PSC in 2011 and 2012, which led to its certification being revoked. Peerless agreed to the settlement as part of a deal for reinstatement.
Echols, who backed Everett’s idea, helped start the Atlanta Care Net affiliate and in 2006 was paid nearly $10,000 in consulting fees by the national organization.
“I think everybody’s heart was in the right place,” PSC Chairman Chuck Eaton said. “It’s definitely a worthy cause… (but) I think there’s issues there. There’s not a connection there.”
Commissioners still need to vote on where to direct the money. Eaton said there’s a “very good chance” the money will end up in the state treasury.
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said federal courts have a similar system for allowing settlement money to be redirected but said Everett and Echols’ plan hardly meets the state standard.
“The idea that a telephone company could be related to an anti-abortion political action group is pretty far fetched,” Oliver, an advocate for abortion rights in the Legislature, said. “I don’t think as a taxpayer I want elected officials choosing their politically identified causes as beneficiaries of a settlement.”